Wednesday, October 13, 2010

St. Thomas on the Virtue of Penance (or Repentance)

"... no sin of a wayfarer can be such as that [unforgivable], because his will is flexible to good and evil. Wherefore to say that in this life there is any sin of which one cannot repent, is erroneous, first, because this would destroy free-will, secondly, because this would be derogatory to the power of grace, whereby the heart of any sinner whatsoever can be moved to repent...It is also erroneous to say that any sin cannot be pardoned through true Penance. First, because this is contrary to Divine mercy, of which it is written (Joel 2:13) that God is "gracious and merciful, patient, and rich in mercy, and ready to repent of the evil"; for, in a manner, God would be overcome by man, if man wished a sin to be blotted out, which God were unwilling to blot out. Secondly, because this would be derogatory to the power of Christ's Passion, through which Penance produces its effect, as do the other sacraments, since it is written (1 John 2:2): "He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world."

Therefore we must say simply that, in this life, every sin can be blotted out by true Penance." - St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae on Penance)

Saint Thomas has helped me understand Catholicism perhaps more than anyone else. As the 'prime' doctor of the Church, I have learned there is a reason behind it. Very few Catholic authors get to the heart of the matter when you look at contrition, the forgiveness of sins, etc, after the Reformation, because they are worried of mis-speaking. Thomas on the other hand seems to clearly put the grace of God at the front of things, saying that the virtue of Penance is all that is required for the forgiveness of sins. Obviously he would say that the Sacrament of Penance finishes this process, giving objective assurance, and helping mete out the satisfaction necessary for sins, however he is clear that there is no case in which a repentant/penitent person seeking forgiveness is rejected by God.

For Aquinas, it has to do with the inner virtue. It is no dead faith which animates this plea for mercy, it is the grace of God at work within the sinner drawing them to call upon God's mercy.

At a personal level - as a very terrible sinner - this teaching is helpful, because I do feel in my heart that I want to repent of my sins and turn to God, and for Aquinas, this heart-faith, this inner turning to Christ is what virtue, and the Christian life is all about.

And of course, this is all the gift of God's grace.

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